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Architects around the world are tackling a huge range of uncomfortable truths

Gabinete de Arquitectura’s brick arch
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Architect Alison Brooks reflects on her time at this year’s Venice Biennale 

Pragmatic advice from a Biennale blogger: First, there’s no time to blog; second, don’t bother with lunch (you’ll lose precious Biennale hours); third, gelato is a fine substitute for both breakfast and lunch until 6pm canapes. 

After a day of reflection on four days of the Biennale its message and impact haven’t lessened. I was heartened by the over-riding sense that the exhibiting practices are clearly working on problems that reach beyond the project itself. The projects, or exhibits, represent a set of values behind which they stand, as architects and as individuals. (Often forgotten, architects are ‘people’ too.) Most of the projects presented are architectural, a very few are not, but nearly all are highly relevant. 

The Biennale demonstrates that architects around the world are tackling a huge range of uncomfortable truths about the human condition and the built environment using our particular analytical, design and organizational skills. The Biennale can therefore be seen as a testament to a core quality of architects today; empathy. We are far more empathetic than our 19th and 20th century predecessors - a patriarchy that produced totalitarian solutions at a great cost to local cultures and environments. In the words of the great community design-build architect and educator Steve Badanes, ’To be an architect is an incredible gift; with that gift comes responsibility.’ This is an empathetic Biennale and by default it is engaging and inclusive. 

Each exhibit of the Biennale is accompanied by an explanatory text, swinging on a bent re-bar stand. The title of each exhibit is followed by the accreditation ‘The Work of …..’ and then, a written third-person narrative on each practice’s work by curator Aravena. The reference to the Work of the practice, rather than a specific project or the exhibit itself, is significant. The fact that Aravena has taken the time to write a citation for each practice also reflects a deep commitment and generosity to both the participanting architects and their audience. Aravena explains the exhibitors’ subjects, disseminates their values and clarifies the reasons for their selection in the Biennale. 

I can imagine bringing my sons or non-architect friends to the Biennale

Because of this overt curatorial care and the huge scope of pressing social and environmental subjects addressed, it seems to me to be much more accessible exhibition with the potential to engage to audiences well beyond the profession. This is also heartening. I can imagine bringing my sons or non-architect friends to the Biennale. They would be really interested in topics like Germany’s urban and social strategies for the inclusion of migrants, the wider potential of UN Military settlements, how we deal with global garbage, why South American architects are working with brick and unskilled labour to create physical, social and cultural infrastructure. They could learn about the inventive ways that architects are dealing with the crises, shortages and excess of our time, of which there are many. 

It’s true that some projects don’t appear to be conceivably fee-generating for their authors, but most are central enough to the architect’s work to ensure they can’t be disregarded as hobbies or side-lines. The Biennale also offers revelations into the work of small and lesser-known practices, showcasing a substantial number of women architects. I was stunned by the projects of Iranian architects in the central Biennale building. Architects there have been working under twenty years of economic sanctions and very limited resources while producing very technically accomplished, beautiful work. Tehran’s incredible Tabiat Bridge was designed by Leila Araghian, the (female) founder of Diba Tensile Architecture. 

The missing link of the Biennale was an explanation of each project’s origin and its financial model. How were the commissions won? Where did the funding come from? What were the mechanisms of governance, patronage or sponsorship that enabled these projects? There’s an air of mystery around these questions that, for me, slightly blurred the clarity of the overall theme. But this mystery is ubiquitous in architectural discourse. We as a profession need to be more transparent and generous with this kind of information. We can’t afford to be sentimental about the financing of a project or the fees on which we depend. We need to understand and share our knowledge of the commissioners and funding models behind the benevolent projects celebrated by the Biennale. ABA’s collateral Biennale exhibition at the European Cultural Centre tries to break this convention of obscurity by showcasing the role of Brent Council as enlightened commissioner and steward of new housing architecture, integrated urban design and social infrastructure in London’s South Kilburn Estate. 

The most refreshing quality of the Biennale as an exhibition of architecture was its predominant air of humility (a few national pavilions excepted.) Humility allows a rare sort of charm to seep through to the onlooker. This is the great strength of Solano Benitez’ projects in Paraguay, for example. Charm and personality work their way into the stories of each project and the way architects have presented their work. An antidote to excessive worthiness, it shines through the seriousness of the subjects. Strange bedfellows: humility, charm and a determined instrumentality for the common good could drive the greatest achievements of our new architectural age.

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